Beyond

I have rather stopped watching movies in the cinema in recent years. This is partly due to my lack of leisure time, but for the most part it’s due to the lack of actual good and interesting movies. It appears to me that the overwhelming part of movies in the theatres are by now either re-makes (such as Spiderman) or sequels and mixtures of already well-known ingredients. I would consider Inception and Interstellar to be the last truly original movies in the past years (and, yes, most probably I’ve overlooked something – but considering the fact that I could overlook that would prove my point).

Paying respect to the franchise that I have spent so much time with, I watched Star Trek Beyond in a cinema near me the other day. Since I’ve only seen it once and there is not yet much access to background matrial, I can’t really say that many deep things about it. The punchline would be: it was entertaining.

Note: This text contains heavy spoilers. Don’t read it unless you have seen the movie, or unless you wish to be spoiled. You have been warned.

Star Trek Beyond tries very hard to be a modern Star Trek movie, being released in the 50th anniversary year of the franchise. One can tell from the optics, from the lines, the various references to the old movies and even to Enterprise. They also hid several small in-jokes in there (some more hidden, some less), such as the seat belts which are only present in the old-era ship. They really tried this time, and I believe they nearly succeeded. Beyond does not feel like classical Star Trek, it’s a modern action movie – but then again, you couldn’t make classical Star Trek episodes on the big screen these days. You couldn’t even make classical Star Trek episodes on the big screen in the old days (I don’t believe, Darmok would work in the cinema; and neither Wrath of Khan nor First Contact are the beloved Star Trek from TV: they are action flicks of their respective time as well).

The credit goes, as far as I can see, to Simon Pegg, writer of the movie and actor of Scotty. He did a fine job of trying to translate Star Trek to modern-day cinema. In the end, we have got a very entertaining movie with a proper balance of action and comedy, a tiny bit of character development and some very nice sequences of the entire crew working together. On top of that, there are interesting new aliens (in the first place of course Jaylah, but I also liked Ensign Syl). Jaylah was a really interesting character – if only Scotty had stopped calling her “Lassie”.

The fact that the crew works together to achieve their goals had been lost in the franchise. Both Next Generation and Deep Space 9 had been ensemble-shows. Each character was important in their own right, and they all got their moments to shine (not all of those moments were well-used, sadly, but nonetheless). Towards the final seasons of Voyager and for most of Enterprise, this had been dropped altogether. Problems were dealt by Janeway, Seven of Nine and the Doctor (only briefly assisted by the rest of the crew, dropping Chaktotay and Harry nearly completely) or by Archer, T’Pol and Trip. In Beyond, the crew works together, which is, of course, some sort of the message of the entire movie: the villain does not believe in teamwork, so he’s beaten by a strong team. This makes the movie like sort of an ensemble show again, down to the point where they complete each other’s sentences, and the even split the classical Star Trek monologue so that each of them has a couple of words in it.

I really liked the scenes of McCoy and Spock, who pay homage to the old series, but who also push the boundaries of the chemistry between these characters. Those two are the buddies of this movie, not Kirk and Spock. And still, Uhura gets her time with Spock again.

Completing the ensemble-topic, I have really come to appreciate the cast, especially the actors of Spock, Uhura and McCoy. They do a really fine job of not impersonating the well-known actors but of giving their characters a new level of personality (which comes from the different experiences they have had in the alternate reality).

I totally loved the looks of the starbase, a huge city in all three dimensions of space. The really put some effort in this one, as well for the looks of the old starship that had stranded on the planet. Also, the small attacking ships have a great and scary look to them – well done, there.

Many of the action-ideas are nicely executed, let me just name the capture of the three rogue ships by letting them smash in the starship, or the Sulu’s really awesome lift-off sequence of the ship by letting it fall down a cliff (only slightly cheesy be having it strike a mountain during its rise).

Now to the rather weak parts of the movie: there’s too much fast-paced action for my taste. Especially towards the destruction sequences of the Enterprise, I had lost track of what was going on. Too many quick cuts, too many close-up shots. I wasn’t even aware of what I should be frightened of, anymore. Action is well and good, and it has its place, but the thing is: I need to understand what’s going on. In particular, in 3d this is quite tough to deal with (as an aside: I’m not fond of 3d anyway and I think it sucks that there are too very little instances to watch the movie in 2d).

Then, the villain. I’ve even forgotten his name, and I didn’t really get his motivation. That’s sad, because they tried to construct a motivation that is tied into the Enterprise-stories of the Xindi and the Romulan War. They also tried to elaborate on this but – hey, couldn’t you do a little better than that? It’s already tough to understand why the villain is as bloodthirsty as he is, why he actually has a grudge against the Federation (he was a maco-soldier in duty to Starfleet, after all – what did he fight for, then? Even if they screwed him over, why not avoid the Federation completely?), why he wants to destroy the starbase, and what did he need that artifact for? The whole storyline doesn’t really fit. The revealing plot-twist isn’t explained either – why did Uhura notice that particular guy in that old movie (is it a log?) to be their villain? It couldn’t have been the looks, but was it the voice? No explanation. What is it that this artifact does – the death of Ensign Syl is shown, but what is going on there?

Then, the deus ex machina planned in advance: there was no actual reason for McCoy and Spock to steer the enemy ship. They didn’t do any good there (because music would save the day, huh?). But on the other hand, we needed a rescue option for Kirk 20 minutes later. In the meantime, they had plenty of time to return to their crewmates, and they didn’t have anything else to do either. But, they stay away in their enemy ship to save the day in the nick of time. Seriously?

Then, the music. Oh, how I loathed the first trailer of this movie when it came out (there’s a reason why I don’t even embed it here). It looked like some random action-packed over-the-top funny movie. When I re-watch the trailer now, it strangely fits, but there’s this music-topic. Rock music saves the day to stop the attack on the starbase. That might have been a nice idea, but it’s executed so strangely and with a ridiculously large explosion… my dear.

Then, is there a reason why this movie is called Beyond? There’s not so much of undiscovered countries, or of breaking frontiers. Even though the villain is talking about the frontier that pushes back – they deal with an unknown part of space. That’s what they always do, that’s their job on this mission. I actually expected a deeper mystery of some sort.

To conclude: too bad that they had to cling to their clichés so much. Too many fist-fights, in the end a fight with the villain to the death, even a ridiculous motorcycle sequence… possibly necessary for success to the box office, but it wouldn’t have been necessary for a proper movie. Especially since I am going to forget most of my impressions of this movie soon. It’s not like memorable movies that make me think even today. But it was fine entertainment and it will keep the Star Trek universe alive.

Scientific Videos

Several years ago, I encountered a collection of youtube videos about the chemical elements, a periodic table of videos. These are made by chemists in Britain who keep their videos regularly updated, and who show the respective elements, do some experiments with them and so forth. Really fine stuff, especially for a non-specialist like me – and you can tell how excited these people get when they talk about their profession.

Now, other scientists have caught on: there are similar videos on physics and on mathematics. Of course, there can be no similarly exhausting list of videos, but they talk about their fields of expertise for a general audience. And again, these people are genuinely excited to talk about their field. Being a mathematician myself, the math videos bring few totally new things to me – but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying them a lot. Their team is a quite studded cast, comprising Barry Mazur, Ken Ribet and Don Knuth, next to professors and PhD Students. This makes me think of the physicists and chemists being similarly famous, it’s just I don’t know them… which is sad, actually. But even in mathematics, you get to know the superstars of your own field and you hardly get to know the other stars. It’s not such a small peer group, after all, until you’ve specialized.

Insightful Movie Reviews

Several months ago I alluded to some websites that contain a large number of reviews. For my particular interests, many of these reviews are about various Star Trek episodes and motion pictures. And during my own re-watch of Deep Space Nine these days, I often have a look at those videos to get a new point of view on some of these episodes.

The first of these websites that I encountered a couple of years ago is the page of Confused Matthew. He mostly deals with reviews of movies that went wrong in some way or other. He is a Trek fan himself and in one of his videos he says „Star Trek: Generations is the reason why I do what I do.“ And when you have a look at this particular review, you will get a blueprint for many of his videos. He shows scenes from the original movie and puts a voice-over on them to point out flaws in the story-telling or directing. He does not stupidly point out any other continuity error but he puts the finger on where the movie fails and why it is just unenjoyable. Hence his nickname: Matthew is confused because some people must have decided to make the movie the way we can watch it today – but why did they? I have come to like many of his reviews, for instance he could clarify some reasons of why I always felt that the second part of Kill Bill was rather sluggish (indeed: what a difference that structure and the order of scenes makes) or why I never grew fond of Minority Report (even though I liked the action).

On the other hand: one doesn’t have to agree with Matthew’s reasoning. For instance, much can be said about stuff that’s wrong about Armageddon – but I can’t feel so bad about many of the scenes, especially about those that deal with characters „who we don’t care about“ as Matthew put it: well, I did care, even though just a little. The thing about the reviews is, he gives his opinion and he does it quite harshly. That’s fine with me, and it gives me something to think about. Sometimes I feel he’s right and sometimes I feel he isn’t. In any case, he seems to have given a lot of thought about his reviews. Besides, his insights are so profound and so fixed on things like structure and story-telling, I wonder if he’s got a background in theater-studies or something like that (same holds for sfdebris to whom I will turn in a moment).

Besides the confused reviews, there are reviews of movies that Matthew is fond of. Here are some gems like Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan or Back to the Future. And indeed, those movies are gems in my opinion, too. Again, one gets a little suggestion as to what went right in these films. One of his favourite movies is Jurassic Park – which suprised me when I saw that. But after seeing his review, I bought a new copy of this movie for myself and even though I wouldn’t call it one of the best movies in the world, it’s actually still good. Especially the special effects still look great and that’s talking about a more than 20 year old movie.

And finally, one can find the mixed reviews, where the latest Star Trek movie „Into Darkness“ has been put among others. Here, I went away from the cinema having a fixed idea in my head what a Confused Matthew review would look like in the end – and I pretty much got it (half an hour of a really great Star Trek story and then nothing to follow up). Maybe, my studies that consist of watching those reviews have shown results… in the end, I have developed a more analytic view of movies.

The other website that I alluded to caught my attention by some remark that Confused Matthew made somewhere. This is sfdebris’ site where he deals with basically the same thing but focused on episodes of several science-fiction series. The bulk of his videos is about Star Trek, obviously, and again, there are very deep insights about the larger story arcs that are being told (for instance one quite late revelation for me: in DS9 the founders of the Dominion were considered a myth, until Odo encountered them and chose to leave – they did not hinder him and word got round, which must have been a massive breach of security, all just because no changeling has ever harmed another. This had of course been more for reasons of being able to tell more Dominion stories – but it is weaved in so seamlessly in the entire context of the story that I needed sfdebris to put his finger on it for me to understand. Let’s close this bracket, shall we…).

Me being no fan of the other shows that are being reviewed there, I just stick to the Star Trek stories. But I still have many left to watch, and every week, some new videos are uploaded… Time passing, sfdebris has established some nice running-gags in his reviews, such as Captain Janeway always looking for ways to manhandle her crewman (which ties in with her character but is a gross overstatement). Those many small gags that are thrown in at random make those reviews very enjoyable. But again, one doesn’t have to agree on that. There are DS9-episodes that I greatly enjoyed and that get ripped to pieces by sfdebris – and vice versa. The interesting thing is to get a new perspective and to think about things from a different angle (or to think about them in the first place).

Interstellar

Recently, I have watched the movie Interstellar in a cinema near me. It’s been the first time in more than a year that I’ve been to the cinema, mostly because I was disappointed with the theaters in my area and with the new movies in particular. Many of the recent movies are more like computer games with a lot of action but without story – of course, this has its place, but it’s not what I look for when I want good entertainment.

Interstellar promised some intelligent story and some nice action. Besides, the movie makers were proud to have Kip Thorne as their scientific advisor: the science in this science-fiction flick was supposed to be as genuine as possible, not made up. And if something was to be made up, it should be based on a genuine physical theory, so that nothing in the movie would be impossible to begin with. This peaked my interest. I own a copy of Thorne’s book “Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy” that I read and enjoyed about 12 years ago (goodness… how old have I become…). And my interest was pushed over the top when I realized that Christopher Nolan was the director, the same Nolan that is responsible for the masterpiece Inception.

Note: The following text contains spoilers, some of them heavy. Do not read any further if you haven’t seen the movie yet and if you don’t want to know about the plot. You have been warned.

The plot of Interstellar is simple on the one hand and contrived on the other hand. Basically, humanity faces extinction and needs to find a way to settle in some other place in the universe. Luckily, there is a wormhole near Saturn and some death-defying astronauts have passed it to survey several planets that are on the other side. But since you can’t properly transmit any detailed signal back through the wormhole Earth only has very limited information about the success of the astronauts. Hence, they send Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway to have a closer look at the three most promising planets and at what happened to the three astronauts that went there. In what follows, I will just refer to the main characters by the actors’ names – I couldn’t memorize what their roles are called, and in this movie, I found it didn’t matter. The only two exceptions are named in the text below.

Before I start telling what I really loved about the scenes that followed, let me first address: the launch of the main characters into space takes place at about one hour into the film. The time before that sets up the background and explains what kind of a guy our main character is (I wouldn’t have connected this guy in any way to the male main character of Contact – either McConaughey really can change the way he looks, or he has gotten quite old. I hope for the first of these alternatives). In particular, we get to know his awfully intelligent daughter, an honestly likeable character. Her role name is Murph, by the way, named for Murphy’s Law: Everything that can happen, will happen. Even though I can’t say that I’ve completely wrapped my head around this allusion. Anyway, there is some voodoo going on about ghosts in her bedroom that kick out the books from the shelf, but that’s just strange. My problem about this was: this first hour of the movie is really sluggish. At first I attibuted this to a metaphore for time-dilation that follows from relativity theory – but maybe that’s taking it too far. It’s just a very slow story.

Then, in space, the pace gets better. We get to learn two robots that can do the extremely rare trick of providing really funny, intentional comic relief. Mostly, the humor in movies like this is either unintentional or unfunny. My respect to the writers of the robot’s dialogue.

My respect spread immediately to the CGI-people and to Kip Thorne for the images of the wormhole. I am quite familiar with the physical concept (at least as far as non-specialist’s science books go) and I am very familiar with the representation of the wormhole in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The wormhole in Interstellar is a lot different and it’s explained on screen without any technobabble: it’s sphere-shaped, and what other shape should it have? In usual representations you explain the concept of a wormhole in two dimensions, so you can fold the paper in the third dimension. Actual wormholes join two places in three-dimensional space, hence they will be three-dimensional (and a sphere is actually a very canonical object – an ellipsoid would have been just as logical). Of course, what would be the distinction of the two dimensions of a “hole” as it’s usually depicted, as opposed to the third dimension where you’d be orthogonal to this “hole”?

The first planet they encounter on the other side is under heavy gravitional influence and hence suffers from extreme time-dilation. But the reports they had gotten were quite encouraging and so they want to take a closer look, even though the transmission from the astronaut landing there has stopped recently. And again: my highest respect goes to Nolan’s imagination, the CGI-people and to Thorne. The planet is uninhabitable, even though there’s a lot of water. But the gravitational stress induces extreme waves that nearly shatter their spacecraft and that killed the astronaut that came before them. When they leave the planet, 23 years have passed on earth because of the time-dilation. I cannot remember seeing a better and more intense representation of an alien world that made so much sense from a physical point of view (except for the lights – why would there be natural illumination on a planet that has no sun? And if the illumination comes from radiation from the black hole near it – why isn’t everybody killed immediately? On the other hand, I didn’t care. I loved the way this planet was shown). Again, I’m quite familiar with the concept of time-dilation, but it took me a while to understand that the astronaut has only landed a couple of hours ago in planet’s time, even though it has been years from the Earth’s point of view – hence the transmissions didn’t stop until very recently. How amazing to be shown a familiar but unusual physical concept in action. And how amazing that they didn’t fool around this like all other science-fiction products that I know.

McConaughey’s daughter has grown up in the meantime and her character has become even more interesting. She is the only one that makes the sequences on Earth bearable. Even though they still are sluggish.

McConaughey himself goes on to the next planet where he encounters a frozen Matt Damon – the astronaut who came to this planet, and the inspiring figure in exploring the other side of the wormhole in the first place. And his readings were extremely encouraging for settling humanity on this planet. He has endured a couple of years in hypersleep until he would be found and woken up. Finally, McConaughey awakes him which brings Damon practically to tears because it’s the first time in years that he has seen a human face. He used to have a robot with him that was named Kipp – most probably a shout-out to Kip Thorne, by the way. In a very nice and unanticipated move, it is shown that Matt Damon faked his data. His planet is uninhabitable, but being desperate he lured the other mission to come to his rescue. In his attempt to complete his assignment (find an adequate planet for humans to live on) he tries to steal McConaughey’s ship, but he fails and dies. McConaughey allows his fellow astronaut Anne Hathaway to land on the third planet that had shown promising results, but in doing so, he must stay behind and fall into the black hole.

This is where the movie gets esoterical again: as far as I know, he should have died immediately after falling into the black hole. And even if he didn’t: on a clock on Earth, he would never enter the black hole, because gravity drags time so much that it would seem he’d hardly move at all. Anyway: he enters the black hole, survives and now he sees the bedroom of his daughter as it was more than 20 years ago. They explain it away as being a space constructed by more advanced humans that allow him to communicate with his daughter in the past… somehow, using gravity. The explanation was somewhat sloppy as far as I was concerned. I somehow had the impression that during the writer’s session, Kip Thorne was sent to fetch some coffee for the team, while the others made up this whole sequence. The movie is very nicely self-referential with some dialogue similar to “they constructed this space so three-dimensional beings could understand it” – “well, that didn’t work”. Apparently, few others found that quote as entertaining as I did, because even a long search on the internet didn’t show me the proper lines. But never mind.

Quoting Confused Matthew here (who said that about one of the Matrix sequels): “They tell you: You might not understand everything that is said in this scene: that’s ok, that’s normal. That’s just how smart the scene is. This is the biggest ‘get out of jail free’-card in the history of film. Now they can have their characters say whatever useless jargon they want as long as it’s confusing enough, and they can get away with it, because if you can’t understand it – hey, they said you wouldn’t, right?”

Coming up next on this blog will be a post with more on Matthew’s reviews. I would really be interested in a review of either Interstellar or Inception.

Well, in the end, McConaughey can communicate through space and time with his young daughter, by kicking out the books from her shelf (yay, full circle!) and using morse code on a wrist watch (which is a nice plot device, actually: communicating through time using a watch). This enables him to somehow being resuced and brought back to earth, even though about 100 years have passed there. There is some paradox there, since his rescue involves knowledge about the inside of a black hole – which can’t be known when you are outside a black hole, since by definition no information leaves a black hole. So he is rescued by a technique that can only be invented if someone has been rescued already. Who brought this knowledge to Earth in the first place? Paradox.

Meanwhile, Anne Hathaway has arrived at the third planet, it is inhabitable and humanity may or may not start a colony there some day. There are some touching scenes about father and daughter meeting again, even though the daughter is a lot older than her old man, and then the movie is about finished.

I felt quite entertained, but the bottom-line is: I was underwhelmed. I had higher hopes for this movie and it hasn’t paid off as much as I wanted it to. But there were some very nice aspects in this, and there are still some things that deserve to get some of my thoughts in the future. Among the new movies I have seen since Inception, this is definitely among the better ones.

Kids, I’m gonna tell you the story of how I met your mother

I used to be a fan of “How I met your mother“. I wasn’t a viewer of the first hour, I just happened to drop into the show during its 3rd or 4th season. It was a fun show to watch, mostly comedic, sometimes tragic and sad, and always with an interesting kind of story-telling. Now that it has come to an end, we have met the mother – finally. I’m free at last.

Note: This text contains heavy spoilers. Don’t read it unless you have seen the final season, or unless you wish to be spoiled. You have been warned.

The last three seasons have been a long, weary thing to watch, and they lacked the creativity that I felt made the important part of the viewing experience. The early episodes were hilarious, intriguing, and they had a clever way of telling the story. I fondly remember the show where Barney participates in the New York Marathon, which was a story inside a story inside a story inside a story. Then, there was the Pineapple Incident, in which Ted wakes up with a hangover and no memories about the previous night. Being a bit of a detective, he tries to reconstruct what has happened to him using the various clues that he finds along his way (one of the clues is an unknown girl in his bed, another is a pineapple – one of these clues will stay unresolved forever). Probably everyone will remember the Playbook and the various ways of Barney finding his next best one night stand. And I should mention the “sandwich” that the characters eat, especially in the flashbacks to their college times. All these were great television moments – and hardly anything was left of that towards the end of the series. In many episodes of the final season, I didn’t even laugh a single time. Mostly, I was bored.

The only reasons for watching the last season were my curiosity about when, finally, Ted will meet the mother of his future kids – and about the mother herself, in person. During the previous 8 seasons, the show built up an image of a nearly perfect mother. And Cristin Milioti totally pays off. She does a fantastic job of being Ted’s soul-mate in each and every one of her scenes. I can’t think of another fictional character on a TV show that I have loved more that “the mother”. And neither can Ted: since we saw him in the course of 8 years searching for his perfect match, always believing in love and failing heart-breakingly: we could now see in the flash-forwards how happy he will be. They really are meant for each other and this makes me feel great about it.

Sadly, as Ted’s future daughter says, “mom is hardly in the story”. That’s a fail. I would have loved to learn more about her; every scene with Cristin Milioti in it raised the standards. I’m perfectly aware that good stories get fascinating because of some sort of conflict – and I actually don’t want to see the mother fight with Ted. But anyway, this is a point where the show didn’t even look into the possibilities ahead. Too bad. A short glimpse of what the writers were capable of was the marvelous episode called “How your mother met me“, where we get the back-story of the mother and the many near-misses of Ted meeting her years ago. Dear authors: when you were able to write this episode – why did you make me sit through Marshall’s road trip and Barney’s family issues? I’ll never understand.

The scenes that had the mother in them made me feel a certain magic to them. They still touch me when I watch them. Here are three highlight-examples:

The “Time Travellers“-episode, where Ted imagines he could travel back in time to be able to meet the mother earlier – even if it would only be 45 days earlier. He says he wants to spend those extra 45 days with her. And if he can’t have that, he’d even take 45 seconds until her boyfriend would arrive and knock him out. Josh Radnor, the actor playing Ted, totally nails this speech. In this scene, I can see a man who desperately loves his wife and who will give anything in the world to be with her. This is awesome acting and awesome writing.

Another highlight is the scene where Barney meets the mother in the episode “Platonish“, a couple of weeks before his proposal to Robin. Having been challenged, he tries to get her phone number, but she refuses and instead gives him the advice to pursue his happiness instead of random girls. He talks about being the best at his game, but she shoots him down with the remarkable line:

Do you wanna keep playing? Or do you wanna win?

This is his turning point, making him realize he will find his happiness with Robin – to which the mother adds: “This is going to take everything you have got. It will take all your time, all your attention, all your resources. This is the big one! You can’t be messing around and picking up girls in drug stores. You got work to do!” This is the scene that made me adore Cristin Milioti in this role.

Finally, the last scene where we see Ted and his wife-to-be together: the scene in which they first meet. The umbrella scene is perfect in every way I could ever hope for.

Possibly, no-one from the producer’s staff expected Cristin Milioti to be so very good. But then again, why did they raise her character to the heavens so very much? Why, in contrast, did they assassinate Robin’s character so harshly: transforming her into a puppet of other people’s feelings and intents (I have to think of the proposal scene and of the wedding rehearsal episode), making her strength and her will completely forgotten until the final episode when she started pursuing her career again?

In contrast to some others, I’m not so very sad about the final plot twist. Yes, it was unnecessary to let the mother die and let Ted return to Robin – but then again it was the producer’s idea from the first season on, and they had to film some ending with the kids in the right age. They could have made different endings of course, but then again: would the “perfect” ending have been among them? They couldn’t predict everything. But even considering their hands were tied this much, they should have taken this into account: they knew that Ted would have to end up with Robin. Then why didn’t they show us more of the mother to make it a bigger step for him to end up with Robin after the mother’s death? Why did they spoil the image of Robin and Ted together so rigorously? Why did they have Robin and Barney get married in the penultimate episode, following the amazing build-up that I mentioned above – just to have them divorced 20 minutes of screen-time later? Why didn’t they make me want Robin und Ted to be together?

Many bad decisions for a show that had passed its peak already. And too many bad episodes that just dragged the story longer and longer without any effect and without any good storytelling. There’s just one thing that made my day every single time: when the mother appeared on screen. Thank you, Tracy!

To boldly go where no one has gone before

I keep a directory where I store my ideas for this blog until I find the time to write them down properly. There, I put those things with which I spend my spare time, and when I’m done with one of those things (or when something significant is associated with them… or when it just feels right), I pull them from the stack and write down what I have to say. From the very beginning, one of the items was Star Trek. I have come to realize that there won’t be a time when I’m finished with Star Trek. So now is as good a time as any. Most certainly, in future posts I will say more about this. I have even thought about opening up a new sub-directory for my Star Trek topics (and I decided against that).

When I was a child, my mother introcuced me to the world of Star Trek. She herself had been a big fan of the classical series (which is abbreviated by TOS – The Original Series – by the knowledgeable people aka the nerds) since she was young, and together we watched many of the episodes about Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. In those days, there were already re-runs of the subsequent series The Next Generation (abbreviated: TNG), and I liked those even more. Then came Voyager, which I watched regularly from its beginning to its end on TV. It took me a lot longer to appreciate Deep Space Nine, where I jumped in only in its last season, and I had to wait painfully long for the re-runs to start and tell me the whole story. And, like almost anyone, I was deeply disappointed from watching Enterprise.

Last summer, I restarted watching the classical episodes, and I was mesmerized about how well many of those stories were told. The special effects are ridiculous or even non-existent, but who cares? The chemistry between Kirk, Spock and McCoy is great, there are well-crafted stories and interesting characters. I sometimes felt that stories like those are not made anymore in today’s television. Many of these episodes were new to me, others I could get to know on a whole new level. Besides, the non-dubbed voices of my classical heroes were a special thing to experience – especially since my DVDs allowed me to compare them with the German translation (which is, frankly, horrible). It is nearly spectacular to hear, what pains the translators took to avoid words like “alien” or “race” in the German version. In most of these instances the meaning of the lines is completely twisted and makes no sense whatsoever.

I shall not make a list of the best episodes or even mention the highlight ones. Lists like this can be found enywhere on the internet and will not make too much sense here. Maybe, I will return in future posts and pick some of my favourite episodes, but this is not the time. The more crucial thing is the kind of universe that is on display in Star Trek, in comparison to the universe in which these episodes were produced. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, made up a world in which there is hope for mankind: no war, no racism, no avarice. Mankind as a whole intends to better itself. A vision like this in the 1960’s, when the Cold War was at its most crucial phase, was very special. Sadly, there are several episodes in which Roddenberry didn’t perceive the beam that was in his own eye: the portrayal of women is sometimes embarrassing, to say the least.

On the bright side, Star Trek has very different aspects to it: action, suspense, political thriller, psychological issues, exploration and science, some fun episodes… you won’t know what kind of show is waiting for you when you start watching a new episode.

When I was done with the 79 episodes of TOS, I rested for a couple of weeks. Then I ran for the 178 episodes of TNG, and this is where I am now. In the middle of its penultimate season, purely and plainly amazed.

I have remembered every episode of TNG when I saw the teaser. But, oh boy, I didn’t remember how good they were. The first two seasons were sluggish and sometimes horrible. But then, the writers had found out what kind of stories they could tell and the ensemble had found its rhythm. And the show produced some of the finest hours of television. Again, I shall not enumerate my favourite episodes – I am still lacking one and a half seasons, and finding a ranking is too tough here. But one episode after the next turns out to be very well-made television in every aspect. This totally makes my day.

The pivotal quote about Star Trek, and the fans’ credo, is this one:

Space – the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no one has gone before.

That’s what the episodes are about, some way or another: these people are explorers. Sometimes they have to fight or to deal with politics, but in their hearts, they seek to improve and better themselves. And this is mirrored by the crew of TNG. Other than TOS, there was a bigger ensemble, and each of them got a chance to be the center of some episode. TOS was a show about Kirk and Spock, sometimes about McCoy. There were other people on the ship, but no episode ever focused on Scotty or Uhura. TNG is different. And that is its strength.

Of course, Patrick Stewart as the Captain is the most talented and most experienced actor of the cast. But he is never a scene-stealer. He has episodes as a diplomat, as a strong leader, as a tough defender of humanity against its enemies, as a father figure to his crew, and as an emotional, subtle, caring, sometimes insecure, man. The entire spectrum can be found in this man, and it depresses me that this list must be incomplete. For instance, I haven’t mentioned his humanity in sparing the life of one of his deadliest enemies; I haven’t mentioned him being the victim of torture; I haven’t mentioned him being revengeful; I haven’t mentioned him being in love; I haven’t mentioned so much. This is a deep, complicated character that we get to know over the years, and he is brilliantly played by the amazing Patrick Stewart.

The most interesting character is Data, an android wishing to become human. For science-fiction reasons, he is the secret weapon of the writers for avoiding trouble with the plot. If in doubt, Data can resolve the problem because he’s an andoroid. Just because. Science. But this is not doing justice: Data doesn’t have feelings, but he develops bonds to his comrades. His ethics stand higher than any order he can be given. And he does develop grandly over the course of the years, always trying to overcome the boundaries of his programming. In one episode, he meets Spock and they discuss their respective goals in life: Spock trying to overcome his human part and to suppress emotions to become more and more Vulcan – as opposed to Data who has always reached for what Spock wanted to get rid of. Data has always been one of my favourite characters when I was a child.

The character that I really have grown to like during my present re-watch is Worf, a Klingon raised by humans. He grew up a stranger among humans, holding himself to traditions that no-one in his surroundings even knows about. When you compare him to other Klingons, he is more by-the-book than the others of his kind. And he has to live in disgrace for treason, wrongly attributed to his father (the real traitor is too powerful to be accused). There, again, is a very deep character with a lot of development over the years. I didn’t like the Klingon stories when I was younger (too dark, maybe), but by now, I find them amazing. In particular, the Klingons are by no means one-dimensional warriors, as they are shown in later series such as Voyager. They are a society as complex as the human society. TNG still has this trait and sells it. And so does Michael Dorn, Worf’s actor, playing a character between two worlds, trying to be Klingon and yet having strong bonds to his human foster parents and his son (though he eventually becomes alienated to him, which gives even more depth to these two characters).

With the Klingon stories, Star Trek started to explore the concept of building large story arcs. In TOS, every episode was self-contained. If you missed some episode, you wouldn’t notice it later. There’s a planet of the week or an alien of the week, and it’s never mentioned again. In TNG, this is still true for most episodes. But there are some large arcs that tell longer and more complicated stories. This is more troublesome for the viewers, since knowledge about the previous actions is necessary and will not be properly repeated. But the story-telling improves a lot. This is where the journey began to today’s TV shows, which tell one single, very long story in the course of several seasons, such as 24, How I met your mother, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones – just to name a few. Star Trek was one of the first shows to experiment with what you can ask of the viewers; just very slowly, of course, since it was long before the era of DVD-sets and streams from the internet. Today, you can watch the entire season back to back, instead of waiting for the next time-slot on the TV.

In many of their best episodes, Star Trek series take an ethical or moralic issue and make you think about it. Some characters will argue pro, others will argue con – and there is no right answer. The characters will act some way in the end, but it will not always be clear whether or not this was a good choice. The science-fiction set is often only a stage or a means to disguise the actual present-time conflict. Roddenberry started this concept in the 1960’s with several episodes about racism and human rights and how to deal with that. TNG took this a lot farther, and sometimes made humanity look a lot darker than Roddenberry had intended. The endpoint of this (amongst many other examples) is Deep Space Nine‘s issue about the big scale conflict that leads to war with tho Dominion – what means can be justified in order to save your own ideals? Does the end justify the means? This is a highly up-to-date question even today, having been discussed by Star Trek decades ago already. And there is no fixed answer to this. Many of the Star Trek episodes can be seen as parables to present-time topics, and in this, they are as up to date as ever.

After their run on the TV, both TOS and TNG went on to produce several big screen movies. Somewhere I heard the very true classification “When they were bad, they were bad. But when they were good – they were masterpieces” (this quote is from a guy nicknamed “Confused Matthew” – his work on the internet is another topic in my stack for future posts). Again, no ranking here. But the good movies did what the TV episodes did in their best moments. In the recent years, after Enterprise had brought down the entire franchise, there were two movies that tried to re-boot the concept of Star Trek. I’m not amazed about those, I already find their premise about an alternate reality rather weak in the first place – and then, they don’t even employ the potential strength of this premise but try and tell the same stories we’ve seen before. Anyway – these new movies only take the names that we once knew and apply either totally different characters to those names or no character at all. The first half hour of the most recent movie “Into Darkness” was a brief, shining moment of building up a fresh, interesting story with all sorts of fine moralic and psychological conflict – only to abandon it immediately for big explosions and stupid action. Too bad. I actually liked the actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Zachary Quinto.

I’ll now take a look at the next episode of TNG. And I will have think about some aspects of Star Trek to discuss in more detail.

There’s something you should know about me. About inception.

Inception ranks top in my personal list of favourite movies. It is the one and only motion picture of my adult life that I have seen twice in cinema. I’ve watched my share of movies, and I’ve watched my favourite ones over and over again, of course. But with Inception it only took an instant to decide there would be a re-watch soon. Of course, when I could purchase it on DVD (which was only several weeks after my second time going to the cinema for it), I couldn’t hesitate, and that allowed me to take a deeper look at several details of it.

Over the last couple of years, I have thought long and deep about what actually happens on screen, what is a deception and what is real. What does it mean for our perception of reality, or of dreams? And what is the nature of inspiration? Actually, I myself have had a moment that I described to some of my friends as “my inception”, something that started with a small and simple idea and that influenced me deeply for years to come.

An idea is like a virus. Resilient. Highly contagious. And even the smallest seed of an idea can grow. It can grow to define or destroy you.

Now, what is this fuzz all about? Inception comes across as a heist movie, but this is just a facade for a (literally) very deep story that unfolds. You have to pay quite close attention in the first 10 or 15 minutes to make sure you don’t lose the threads before they even start. You will encounter a tremendously good Leonardo DiCaprio playing Cobb, an “extractor”: he links into other people’s dreams to steal their secrets and sell them. One day, he is hired to to the opposite thing: inception. His job is to implant an idea in the mind of the heir of a big company: the company shall be split up and their monopoly be brought down. So, Cobb hires some co-workers and they start building several nested layers of dreams. At the deepest level, they place this idea, transformed to a very simple and very emotional appearance; the target person will embrace this idea, wake up from the dreams and remember having had a very inspiring dream that results in splitting up his company.

This will sound quite technical and sterile, if you haven’t seen this movie. I have only sketched the first layer of the story here, there’s a lot more to it that I can’t even begin to describe here. Cobb, for instance, has a vast experience about sharing dreams and the dangers of this – most suspense comes from the interaction with his mind’s manifestation of his late wife. There is a detailed backstory of how he lost the distinction between dreams and reality, and how he can only dream by dream-sharing now, which drives him near madness and desperation. The audience’s counterpart is Ellen Page, playing a character that is appropriately named Ariadne, who is new to dream-sharing and allows us to follow in her introduction to all of this. It is her, who gets to know Cobb and his troubles about the death of his wife. And this death has led Cobb to leave the country and work in this illegal area: he mustn’t return to his children because he is accused of murder. This torments him, all over the place he will see the last memory he has kept of his children. He has directed each and every one of his actions to the goal of seeing his kids again.

One of the reasons why this movie will stick to your mind is the images. Because large parts of it take place in a dream-world, the usual laws of physics do not apply. And even when they do, the scenes are shot in a highly innovative way, using many unconventional techniques. I believe the last movie that had been that innovative was The Matrix. Particularly, I find the zero-G scenes in the second layer of dreams wonderful to watch. I would have to compare this to the scenes of Sandra Bullock’s performance in Gravity, which I, sadly, have not been able to watch yet. But Inception sets many standards, not only in this case, but also in the instances where dreams collapse and in the many small details that will remind you of classical dream-images. The first of which is a fine use of never-before-seen special effects, the other scared me ever since I got aware of them – seeing images of anxious dreams on the big screen makes them even more anxious. For instance, in one chase-sequence, Cobb is trapped between two walls that seem to narrow down. Dream images like this can be found in many scenes all over the movie. Besides, note the Penrose stairs – what a fine sequence there.

Finally, I loved the sequence about bending an entire city to make it U-shaped and walk upside down.

Apart from all this, the movie is not attached to any time period. It takes place in the present or in “the not too distant future”, but there is no reference to this. It has potential to be still good-looking twenty years from now (as opposed to most James Bond or Mission Impossible flicks – just to name a few – that have technical gimmicks which already look weird when the film is played in the theater).

Somewhere, I have heard things like “this is beyond convenient”, regarding some of the events in the movie. I am afraid, whoever said that hasn’t understood the concept of this. It is dealing with dreams – when we are dreaming, some things will happen that appear strange after we wake up, but while dreaming we will hardly be startled by anything. This is one of the stylistic devices that writer and  director Christopher Nolan has placed all over the place. In a throughly constructed story like this, those things are most probably intentional, they are quite surely no mistakes (of course, there is some plot-hole or other… I won’t be picky on this movie, though).

When they need a wake-up-call in their dreams, the people in the movie will use Edith Piaf’s song “Je ne regrette rien”. It becomes a recurring theme in the movie, in more ways than one. I have had long philosophical discussions with myself about the way in which regret and starting a new life are mirrored in the actions of the movie. In addition, there’s the katharsis topic: you have to free yourself of regrets and ties to your past in order to move on; this is something that Cobb does accomplish during the movie, inspired by Ariadne (and thank God, not in a romantic way that many other Hollywood movies would have used). Actually, there’s a theory to this movie that Ariadne does an inception on Cobb in this movie, placing the idea of letting go his late wife deeply down in his mind. This also implies that everything we see is a dream, we don’t actually get to see reality. I have to say, it fits so extremely well; but the movie wants to be ambiguous, there’s no way to prove anything there.

The other great thing of this movie and the use of “Je ne regrette rien” is in the overall soundtrack: The paradigm says, you mind will work faster while dreaming, five minutes of waking-time equal one hour of dream-time. Thus, the music of the wake-up-call will be slowed down when they hear it in their dreams. The most amazing thing I have encountered in this movie is explained in this clip:

Apart from this, I can recommend the soundtrack in its entirety – it captures the story beautifully, including many acoustic associations to dreams.

A short search will give you many, many websites where you can find theories on the interpretation of Inception. Personally, I believe the movie wishes to be ambiguous: You’re not supposed to be able to find a coherent and definitive view. I will therefore not give my two cent’s worth about this, apart from what I said above. Pretty much everything has been said on this already, and there’s a lot of truth in it (even though some theories are less far-fetched that others). Only so much: I deeply admire the idea for this script, and I have loved the final result of Christopher Nolan’s effort with this movie. This has been an inspiring movie for me, and some of it’s basic ideas have influenced me in many ways.

Another kind of movie review

There are many funny movies out there on youtube. But some of the best are about ironically pointing out the flaws in movies – be it good or bad ones. Let me show you a couple of examples – you will find many more when you follow the recommended videos.

Please be aware, that these clips all contain heavy spoilers. If you still intend to watch the original movies, don’t have a closer look at the clips that follow.

The “Everything Wrong With” clips, that show brief scenes of a movie and then a voice-over on why there’s something wrong. The fallacies are never those boring continuity-related ones, but on plot holes, nonsensical ideas in the script, bad acting, etc etc. I especially love the tongue-in-cheek flaws, such as “Hermione isn’t old enough to be hot yet” in the review of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban:

Another fine example, among a lot of others, is the error “Nokia” in the review of Star Trek:

Now, for the “Honest Trailers“. Those are videos that are made of movie clips as well, pointing out the highlights, the film makers and anything that usually makes you want to see the flick, just as any other trailer does. Even including some stern voice-over, similar to what we know from trailers to action movies. Now, these honest trailers will point out why the movie is not so awesome after all. One of the best honest trailers is, in my opinion, the Matrix:

Now, one of my very favourite movies of all is Inception (some day, I will desperately need to go into more detail on this). That being said, it’s clear that I totally love the honest trailer to it:

For good measure, let’s turn to “How it should have ended“. Those are anime clips, that are based on the original movie. And they acutally show up a way how the movie could have ended differently – using a deep plot hole for instance. Take the Lord of the Rings for instance:

Finally, a nice ending to the Harry Potter saga:

As I said, there are many of these clips, and they are awesome, when you have seen the original movie. Enjoy!

New fake trailers to classic movies

Today, randomly surfing on youtube, I encountered trailers for classic movies. They have a different music to them and the scenes from the movie are arranged such that you get an entirely different feel for the movie. So, “Forrest Gump” becomes a creepy horror film:

“Monty Python and the Holy Grail” is now some epic hero stuff:

And “Stephen King’s IT” (where I need to say that the book is a million times better than the movie, and it’s not my favourite book in the world) is a Disney-style family film:

There are more of these amazing trailers on youtube, but they are only funny once you know the original flick… and since I have never seen “Jaws” or “Shining” before, the trailers don’t bring much fun to me – but maybe to you. Concerning the films that I know, I found these new fake trailers hilarious. Enjoy!